Companion of detained dissident journalist may face charges in Belarus, Russia says

Belarusian blogger Roman Protasevich detained when a Ryanair plane was forced to land in Minsk is seen in a pre-trial detention facility as he says in Minsk Belarus

Last Sunday Sofia Sapega and her partner, dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, were detained by Belarusian authorities.

According to local media, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko had personally deployed the warplane to escort the Ryanair jet.

World leaders have condemned authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko for what many have described as a "hijacking", while the European Union imposed sanctions and US President Joe Biden described it as an "outrageous incident" and a "direct affront to global norms".

In his first public statement since the Ryanair flight was diverted and opposition journalist Roman Protasevich arrested on Sunday, Mr. Lukashenko dismissed the worldwide outcry the incident provoked.

"I acted lawfully to protect our people", Lukashenko said in an address to parliament, the Belta state-run news agency reported.

The Belarus strongman claimed the flight was ordered to be grounded following a bomb threat that was sent from Switzerland.

The Russian foreign ministry said in a statement that Sapega was being detained "in connection with the suspicion of having committed, between August and September 2020, offences under several articles of the Belarusian Criminal Code".

Belarus's authoritarian president on Wednesday defended his action to divert a European flight that triggered bruising European Union sanctions and accused the West of waging a "hybrid war" to "strangle" the ex-Soviet nation. Polish carrier LOT and Baltic airlines began bypassing the country, while Air France, KLM, Lufthansa and others said they will follow suit.

"Our ill-wishers at home and overseas have changed their methods of attacking the state", Mr. Lukashenko said.

Lukashenko - often dubbed "Europe's last dictator" - is facing some of the strongest worldwide pressure of his 26-year rule of ex-Soviet Belarus.

In power since 1994, Lukashenko faced mass protests throughout the second half of previous year after he was declared the victor of a presidential election that his opponents said was rigged.

In response to Pratasevich's arrest and the diversion of the flight, which was traveling between two EU countries, leaders quickly agreed to ban Belarusian airlines from using the airspace and airports of the 27-nation bloc and urged European airlines to avoid Belarus' airspace.

The Kremlin said on Wednesday there was no reason to doubt statements made by the Belarusian leader.

The Belarusian opposition has called for further and stronger measures and more protests. The UN Security Council is set to meet behind closed doors later on Wednesday.

The pair had been travelling on a flight from Athens to Vilnius, in Lithuania, when Belarus scrambled a military jet and forced their plane to land in Minsk - the Belarusian capital.

The journalist, Roman Protasevich, whose social media feed from exile had been one of the last remaining independent sources of news about Belarus, was shown on state TV on Monday confessing to organising demonstrations. His father said the confession was coerced. In it, she said she had been working as the editor of a Telegram channel that revealed personal data about Belarus' security officers amid the protests.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of the Belarusian opposition who operates from nearby Lithuania, said on Twitter that Sapega appeared to be under psychological pressure.

Protasevich's mother told AFP in Poland that she had not slept since he was arrested.

"I'm asking, I'm begging, I'm calling on the whole global community to save him", Natalia Protasevich said, weeping.

"They're going to kill him in there".

Foreign minister Vladimir Makei also warned that Belarus could opt out of the EU's Eastern Partnership in view of the new sanctions.



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